Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007
After I had made the decision to enlist with the US Army, the next step was to attend Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Jackson, S.C. None of the experiences in my life prepared me for the vaporization of personal space and dignity that BCT and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) brings to the table.
I’ve always been a slim person, but I didn’t understand at the time just how different “slim” and “fit” are. The less fit you are, the harder BCT and AIT will be for you. If you happen to do poorly enough in Reception (the period right before BCT where you are, essentially, enrolled in the Army), you’re then on your way to a Physical Training Platoon (also known as Fat Camp or Camp Cookie) where you’ll remain until you are able to pass the Physical Training test required for BCT. Luckily, I was “fit enough” to squeak by the PT test.
Reception was a different animal than BCT or AIT. If all of the Army were like Reception, nobody would enlist. When we got off the bus at Fort Jackson, we were herded by a gaggle of angry, weary-looking Drill Sergeants into a large classroom. The Drill Sergeants circled us as we formed rows, barking gibberish nonsense all the while, such as “FRONT LEANING REST POSITION, MOVE!” We learned very quickly that it meant to get on the ground, in the starting position to do push-ups. I remember looking up at the promotional GO ARMY signs on the walls in the yellow light, on my hands and toes, as the realization that I was in the Army washed over me.
In Reception, you stand in an array of formations and scream your name when asked to scream your name. You’re forbidden to interact with members of the opposite sex or talk during meals. You wear civilian clothes until military apparel is issued, but after that, you won’t see them again until after BCT or during AIT. The Drill Sergeants at Reception struck me as people who really just wanted to go home. Here you were, preventing them from doing so, and so you didn’t deserve to be treated like a human being. I suppose I can understand how a person gets that way; most of them probably didn’t care anymore. They weren’t training us (more like training us for training); they didn’t need to earn our respect or trust. Some of them seemed downright hateful, and not in an “it’s my job” way. The fact that the whole process could have been completed in two days but dragged out over a week didn’t help anyone’s mood.
On a cool, Sunday afternoon in November, buses came to take us to our training battalions. Our Reception Drill Sergeants had been adamant that we not embarrass them in front of the BCT Drill Sergeants; our performance was a direct reflection on them. They warned us that if we made even the tiniest mistake, these gods would come down on us like it was the Armageddon. To everyone’s surprise, the BCT Drill Sergeants were mostly calm, said very little and watched. As BCT progressed I came to realize that the new Drill Sergeants’ primary concern was to train us to the best of their ability. It turns out that the reason they were so “kind” (I put this in quotations because they are, after all, Drill Sergeants and have a tendency to scream) was because we were the first cycle to be classed as “Low Stress.” “Low Stress” cycles came about when TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) decided that unnecessary levels of stress were the cause of unacceptably high attrition rates amongst new BCT soldiers. It was a relief for us, but a pain in the ass for them. The Drill Sergeants had not yet learned how to discipline less obedient trainees while still following the new regulations. Drill Sergeants were no longer able to discipline individual soldiers as expertly as in the past. They had always been fond of group punishments, and so I got smoked all the time. After all, there was always one person fucking up.
“Smoking,” or disciplinary physical punishments meted out by non-commissioned officers (NCOs), is a very important part of Army culture. It’s also very common—as much as seven times a day if you’ve pissed off someone badly enough. Being smoked is not much fun, even less so if you are out of shape. The first few smoke sessions were like torture for me, both physically and emotionally. I have a tendency to take disciplinary measures directed to a group personally, and so it felt as if I was being insulted all day long. I eventually realized that I usually wasn’t the reason everybody was being smoked, which allowed me to take it less personally, if more angry at whoever committed the infraction at the group’s expense.
The barracks were brand new, and the Drill Sergeants were fairly obsessive with keeping them clean. Female Drill Sergeants have a petty habit of calling every female soldier “Nassssty,” for good reason or not. Sometimes it made me wonder what kind of houses they lived in, or whether they wore latex gloves to avoid touching doorknobs with bare hands, like an OCD patient. One girl who went AWOL over Christmas Exodus got the “Nassssty” label. After the holidays, we came back to find pairs of bloody underwear in her locker.
She wasn’t the worst case. The worst was a girl I’ll call Date. Date was about 25 and had dirty hair that clung to her face and eyebrows that looked like scared caterpillars. Her cheeks were covered with what looked like pubic hairs, and she had an overbite and buckteeth, in addition to nonexistent dental hygiene habits. Date was not an attractive person to begin with, but her refusal to shower was a real issue for our all-female bay. Every training company has a Date, and everybody always wonders how she got into the Army.
Date’s physical shortcomings were compounded by her character flaws: incredibly pathetic, scared of everything and wanted everybody to do her training for her. I suspected Date knew this wasn’t possible and so decided to help her and abandon the “Treat her like a baby” or “Be really bitchy to her” camp for the “Treat her like an adult” club. But about three-fourths of the way through BCT, I was ready to smash her skull with the butt of my M16, and so I abandoned that cause, too. Date managed to graduate under the same new regulations that kept us from really being wrung dry in BCT (after all, keeping the attrition rate low was the main objective). She went on to AIT at Fort Leonard Wood to be a 25V (Combat Documentation, which is essentially a Combat Photographer). Other than that, nobody I know has any idea what happened to her.
About two months later, BCT graduation took place on a cold and gray day. I was ready to get out of there and hoped that maybe at AIT I wouldn’t pass out from dehydration or get strep throat from sleeping on the ground in 10-degree weather. I was satisfied with my performance at BCT. I thought I’d done a good job.
I thought wrong. BCT did not prepare me for AIT. Granted, I was in a shitty company with shitty Drill Sergeants, but it would be unfair to blame all my problems on them. The problems with AIT were manyfold. For starters, BCT had changed to “low stress,” and AIT had not, so we were inadequately prepared. What’s more, instructors were chronically unable to agree with each other on basic Combat Medic fundamentals. Do you put a patient on his injured side or on the other? Can you leave the needle in when you perform a needle decompression, and if so, for how long? Some things were outlined for us in the Combat Medic handbook we were given near the beginning of the cycle, but for things that weren’t in that book (or were not elaborated on), most of my peers picked and chose what they believed and did not believe based on which instructor they liked the best. Thankfully, the first part of the course was for civilian qualification (EMT-Basic), which has a standardized test. That was not something where the facts could be decided by personality loyalties.
Initially, I hated AIT so much that I thought that I couldn’t make it through. Scratch that—it wasn’t that I couldn’t make it through, but that I had no desire to do so. I attempted to fail my second test (you have to fail something twice to “double-tap,” as they call it), but came up with a 76 instead. Had I actually double-tapped, I would have ended up recycled to another training company, or perhaps retrained in an “easier” MOS (Military Occupational Specialty)—but still one of the top 25 most necessary, which means it probably would have been a shitty MOS nobody wanted. It was unfortunate that once I had accepted AIT for what it was, that grade was on my permanent record. It came back to haunt me later. As much as I hated AIT and thought the Drill Sergeants were incapable of doing much other than yelling, marching, and doing paperwork, I just sort of…accepted it. It’s okay to die a little inside if it helps you through. I didn’t stop taking attacks personally, I just stopped caring if somebody attacked me. Mutual respect was clearly not a rule anybody played by in AIT, and I tried to keep the disgust in the back of my mind where it wouldn’t betray me to the Drill Sergeants. The Army does a pretty good job of teaching you to take the heat and do nothing.
AIT for 68W Healthcare Specialist did have its high points. Our two-day clinical rotation at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, for instance, was incredible. Most of the instructors were knowledgeable, and many of us got to see fascinating medical procedures, like cardiac catheterizations. I was originally assigned to the Medical Surgery ward, but I ended up working in the Outpatient Burn Clinic. BAMC specializes in dealing with severe burns. You would not believe the things you witness in a burn ward, especially when most of those patients are Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) victims. Those were the best two days of my life, and I will never forget what it was like to work in a real hospital with impressive credentials. It’s too bad that a lot of my peers never got to the point that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel: at least 50 soldiers out of our class of about 350 double-tapped and were recycled to another company, or reclassed to another MOS entirely.
I graduated from the four-month long 68W AIT with just .11 below a 90 GPA, the cutoff for Honor Grad. Three friends and my boyfriend attended the ceremony, which was more cheerful than that of BCT, and I returned to Houston. A few weeks earlier, I had received my orders for Fort Benning, GA. Upon showing two Drill Sergeants my duty assignment, both of them said, “That’s not the one you want.”
I should have known.
Up Next: Deep inside the burn ward